So the hideous but seemingly immortal serpent that is scientific racism has emerged once again. This time the perpetrator is James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for his part in the discovery of DNA.
Watson last week parroted the oft-repeated claim that black people are less intelligent than white people.
In Watson’s mind, those who believe that all human beings are born equal in intelligence are simply deluded. After all, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
Just to emphasise the point, Watson exhumes the old line about genetic differences in IQ – he says the genes responsible for creating human intelligence will be found in the not too distant future.
Watson is no stranger to controversy. He has suggested a link between skin colour and sex drive, arguing that black people have stronger libidos.
He also supports genetic screening and engineering on the basis that stupidity is a disease – the bottom 10 percent of people should, Watson believes, be “cured”.
His ideas about women are no less anachronistic: “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.”
It would be easy to pass off Watson’s statements as the wandering comments of an ageing scientist. Sadly, modern racism has always relied on some kind of scientific legitimation.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries research on race and intelligence was used to argue that white people were superior to all other races, justifying colonialism and the ill-treatment of “inferior” races.
Contemporary debates about race and intelligence can be traced back to an article by the psychologist Arthur Jensen.
He tried to demonstrate that differences in IQ between whites and blacks in the US were a function of black people’s inferior genes.
In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, in which they suggested that black Americans’ poverty could be explained by their “biologically determined” inferior intelligence.
A year ago, Satoshi Kanazawa argued that African countries were poor and suffered from ill-health because their populations are less intelligent than people in the richer West.
Inherent in the argument of black inferiority is the assumption that it is possible to distinguish a “black race”, and that this race has inferior genes for intelligence.
But this ignores decades of research suggesting that race is not a meaningful concept and that there is no biological basis for race.
In a recent article, the psychologists Robert Sternberg, Elena Grigorenko and Kenneth Kidd have argued that much of the research on intelligence and race is based on cultural tradition rather than scientific analysis.
Race, they write, fits into no known genetic pattern.
In other words, race is a socially constructed concept, not a biological one, which makes the notion of differences in intelligence between races entirely spurious.
Even if it was accepted that there are distinct biological races, it should be quite clear that there can be no simple correlation between a person’s genes and her or his intelligence.
The mistake of Watson, Kanazawa and others is in privileging one aspect of human nature (biology) over another (culture).
Individuals may very well differ in their biological inheritance, but they are also separated by an immense cultural gulf – in the case of Africa, a gulf that originates from centuries of exploitation and discrimination.
Is it really a surprise, then, that people who are educationally, economically and socially deprived will be worse performers on educational tests (including IQ tests designed and validated in the West) than those who are relatively privileged?
The truly remarkable thing, in my mind, is that cross-national differences in IQ are as small as they are.
Moreover, intelligence itself is a controversial topic, with many contemporary researchers calling for broader definitions of intelligence other than just simple IQ.
It is not Africans who have waged war, colonised, enslaved or exploited almost everyone else on the planet.
Yet, these lapses of intelligence on the part of the “intelligent West” are conveniently overlooked by Watson.
Watson has defended his previous comments through talk of free speech. His argument suggests that scientists should be able to ask any question irrespective of political outcome.
I do not dispute that scientists should scrutinise popular assumptions and challenge intellectual taboos.
But given the long history of scientific racism, it is essential that scientists are made responsible not just for empirical precision, but also for the accuracy of their views when made public.
Scientists should not be allowed to make use of spurious research to substantiate personal and cultural racism.
Challenging scientific racism, however, will require much more than just a scientific response, important as this is.
It is just as crucial for non-scientists to be aware of these debates and to help fight this racism.
Viren Swami is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Westminster. He is the author of The Missing Arms of Venus de Milo